Welcome back to the weekly Nuts & Bolts Guide to small campaigns. A few months ago, I wrote a Nuts & Bolts diary about the lack of solid representation in local offices, particularly law enforcement. Sheriff’s offices and District attorneys are overwhelmingly older white men, and organizations like Reflective Democracy have pointed this problem out repeatedly. In a large number of cases, these positions are held by elected officials. In many states, local judges as well are elected officials. Sheriffs have an oversized position in law enforcement power, often provided to them by state constitutions, but over 60% of them run for office unopposed. 90% of the sheriffs in the United States are white men, but white men are only 30% of the United States population. The fact that they run unopposed, sometimes for multiple decades, leads to this imbalance.
Why don’t we take these races more seriously? While 60% face no opposition, many other races face only token opposition from underfunded candidates who are often not likely to get support even if they had funds. A fair number of challenged sheriffs around the United States view those opponents as “for fun” candidates rather than serious campaigns.
Here is the problem. In electing judges, the problem is even greater. In Washington State, of 147 judges up for election, only 29 ran opposed. In Seattle in 2018, 16 judges were up for election, and none faced an opponent. Want a statistic even scarier? County prosecutors in under 100,000 population communities face opposition roughly 25% of the time, and only in very large counties does that number grow.
Why this happens
It is very easy to say that people just don’t pay attention to the election of judges, county sheriffs, or district attorneys. That is one answer, but it isn’t the whole of the story. In many cases, people fear running in these races because of how it could impact their careers. Challenging a sitting judge can be a difficult choice for an attorney who needs to practice in that courthouse if they do not prevail.
When the odds are difficult, finding a candidate to run against a sitting judge can be complicated. It is a real financial risk to the candidate’s career, and in rural counties, some candidates have found themselves being forced to move away if they put up a challenge and lose. If you run for any other race, you can go back to your daily job and generally be OK. Run for an open judicial post and lose? Lawyers will tell you they find courthouses that are in opposition to them even being in the building.
Individuals running for district attorney, county prosecutor, or sheriff run into a different wall: complete disinterest. Voters generally assume that if they haven’t heard a lot of bad things about the person serving in these offices, everything is going well, and therefore they don’t even bother to vote in these races. This is also a self-fulfilling problem, as without an election there is never any discussion about the way those offices are being handled, good or bad.
This lack of discussion results in problems much later, when they only discover too late that the practices within a district attorney’s office or a sheriff’s office can be harmful, vindictive, and not truly on the side of fair justice.
What do we need to do?
When it comes to judicial elections, which range from a full election to a retention election, some suggestions include promoting retention elections followed by the appointment to a judicial spot by a governor after approval by the state bar association. While this practice will not be perfect, it may be better than nothing at all. It also allows for easier campaigns of “Do not retain.” Attorneys dread running against sitting judges because of the impact on their careers. If we can remove that element, it is a lot easier for the race to focus only on the sitting judge, rather than any specific opponent that can be targetted.
When it comes to district attorneys and sheriffs, we are just going to have to start rolling up our own sleeves. This means it will be upon the voters to start recruiting, working with, and supporting candidates running for these offices. Better research and more consideration need to be provided to candidates who will run against these officials.
If we do not begin to take these elections far more seriously, the patterns will continue and you will see the ongoing election of officials who face very little public discussion about the office itself. The less time spent discussing what these offices actually do, the less ability the public has to provide accountability, review, and try and generate change in any of these positions.
Spring, fall, off-year, and on
Elections for these offices are scattered nationally. Some occur in odd-numbered years. Some happen with regular federal election years. Some happen in the spring, some in the fall. One of the ways that Democratic efforts in statehouses can help improve the attention paid to these races is by working toward standardization of elections. I personally prefer to have elections in November every year. That can mean locals in odd years, federals in the other, or state in one year, federal in the other. It is that consistency: that every November you go and vote, which makes it easier to keep the voting base informed and involved.
When election dates bounce around the spring, you can find voter turnout, and informing voters becomes more difficult. Make voting a habit and it is easier to remember and practice. If we are looking at how to improve the potential election of justice system positions, this is one of the changes that can be made through statehouses that help enable community discussions about what justice should look like for your community.
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